Cover reveal: ‘Real Friends’ and navigating the perils of elementary school


Summer vacation has come and gone and now kids are back in school. And there’s no better way to get into the back-to-school spirit than with new graphic novel “Real Friends,” set on the playgrounds of grade school. 

Author Shannon Hale and artist LeUyen Pham have teamed up for "Real Friends," a story about tough times in grade school, where kids have to learn to navigate friendships, safe spaces and bullies all set in the retro days of the late ‘70s early ‘80s in Salt Lake City.

"I think almost anyone will find something to relate to with this book," said Pham. "It’s about a young girl, Shannon, who struggles with her friendships at school and her relations at home, particularly her older sister."

"I often retold events of my childhood to my own kids or to kids at school visits, but never before had I considered writing a memoir," said Hale about the pseudo-memoir. "But my daughter didn’t consider herself a 'reader' until she discovered graphic novel memoirs like 'Smile’ by Raina Telgemeier and 'El Deafo' by Cece Bell. I saw the power in that kind of a book, and I thought maybe there were readers who might feel less alone if they could read and see how alone I had felt at their age too." 

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Hale and Pham have previously collaborated on the bestselling "Princess in Black" series for young readers. "Real Friends," from First Second Books, is set to be released May 2, 2017.

Pham and Hale discussed via email "Real Friends," creating stories for young readers and the difficulties of elementary school. 

Can you share some background on "Real Friends"? What is it about and what kind of characters can readers look forward to?

Shannon Hale: In 2014, for the first time in over a decade, I had no book under contract and I gave myself some time to take a breath and ask, what do I want to create next? What do I need to create? And in that breath of space, I found myself drawn to memories of elementary school.

After I wrote out lots of different memories I had of my childhood, I consulted with my editor, Connie Hsu, about what to do with them. We talked through possibly using them as a basis for a fictional series of graphic novels. It was a tough decision to dive in and write it as memoir. Really tough. There’s no hiding in memoir. When readers criticize the main character of this book, they’ll be directly criticizing me, and at my most vulnerable!

I was really hesitant to try to portray my memories of real people, even though I changed their names. But ultimately I kept coming back to my own daughter, how much it meant to her to read the real stories of [Telgemeier and Bell]. And I thought, maybe it’ll be that much more comforting to my readers to see that I had some tough times at their age, and that I survived and made good. Maybe that will give them extra hope for themselves.  

LeUyen Pham: Grade school is tough, and sometimes those places where you should feel safest are the areas you sometimes are the most frightened of being. Bullies sometimes come in the form of friends and family, and that’s the hardest to deal with. 

The book features a young Shannon, an imaginative but insecure girl who struggles to find a place amongst her group of friends at school: Adrienne, her easygoing and pretty best friend; Jenny, the most popular girl in school; Jen, the bully with her own problems; Wendy, her older sister struggling with her own identity; and Zara and Veronica, two cool older girls whom everyone wishes they’d known as kids. At least, I wish I had!

How is it different to address some of these issues younger readers might face, such as friendships, bullying, fitting in, in a book set in the real world? Is it more difficult or easier in any way?

LP: It was infinitely easier for me. I’m primarily a picture book illustrator, and the books that I do usually occupy worlds of fantasy or nostalgia, and they’re always designed with the goal to somehow comfort the reader and put them in a safe place. 

This book was my first attempt at going to a very real place, all those scary aspects of childhood that later define who you become as an adult. It was like tapping into the journal of my memories to conjure up these images, there was no work to be had to find what things should look like, or what emotions to portray, because like Shannon, and probably everyone out there, I’ve had those same issues as a kid.  

I was never at a loss for the visual. What was very difficult was having to tap into those old feelings and manifesting them onto paper without going through them again. There are scenes in the book that are as real to me now as when they happened to me as a kid, and reliving it could really take its toll.  

SH: It’s so true! This was the toughest book emotionally I’ve ever written. At times I had to really fight not to get drawn back into that hole of anxiety and loneliness I felt as a kid. At other times I let myself fall into it so I could really remember how it felt in order to communicate that in the graphic novel script. 

During the process, I had to lean even more on my husband and my own real friends while I wrote, just to keep my footing! It was a good reminder of how many kids are feeling now, including my own, and maybe has helped me remember to respond with compassion first. 

Shannon, what led you to decide to step away from the fantasy worlds of a lot of your previous works and explore the trials of growing up in a more “real life” setting for this story?

SH: In terms of the writing itself, writing real life and fantasy isn’t much different. Any story, no matter the genre, builds on realistic characters and their relatable hopes, flaws, feelings, and struggles. Any story takes place in its own world. The setting of this book is 1979-1985 Salt Lake City, Utah, and specifically as I perceived it as a 5-11 year old. For some readers, that setting may feel as fantastical as Narnia! And for others, it may feel a lot like their own home. 

LeUyen, what attracted you to "Real Friends"? What was it about the story that resonated with you?

LP: I think Shannon and I are some sort of kindred spirits. When I first read the story, I kept thinking that she was actually writing about me, because her story is so similar to experiences I went through as a kid. 

Seriously, you could just swap out Salt Lake City for the suburbs of Los Angeles, her large Mormon family for my large Catholic family, and her Caucasian features for my Asian ones, and you have the same story. Not to mention we’re both the same age, and grew up in the same era of Madonna, My Little Pony, and Wonder Woman. There was, in short, nothing about the story that didn’t resonate.  

The two of you have collaborated on "The Princess in Black" series. Was there anything different working together on "Real Friends"? Besides the story itself, how does collaborating on a graphic novel compare to collaborating on an illustrated chapter book or picture books?

LP: For me, the main difference was that Shannon really wanted my input on the graphic novel, and no problems with my suggestions here and there to streamline or better explain the story. 

With "The Princess in Black" series, Shannon and [co-author] Dean [Hale] have such a tight handle on the direction that character needs to go, and are brilliant in the storytelling and reveal and twists, and my part was just to try to match their wit with visuals that were worthy. Also, with picture books, I try my best to add my own sort of visual narratives to it, independent of the story, to keep the book fresh and fun to look at. 

With a graphic novel, much of the narrative occurs purely in the visuals. I see it sort like making a movie or acting in a play. Shannon is the director and writer, the one who helms the story and keeps the course steady, and I’m the actor who comes in and tries to express the emotions the director wants. 

I can interpret and translate all I want, but the goal is to produce the story as honestly as the director has in mind. So to that end, I switch up things a bit here and there, but all to the service of the story and the director’s vision. 

And of course, there’s our editor, Connie Hsu, who has the much more difficult job of keeping us both on track, making sure we didn’t go nuts, providing clarity when we were just too close to the material to figure it out.  Following the film metaphor, she’d be the producer going up to receive the Academy Award.

SH: Yes, it’s just like a movie that way! And Connie is the producer! The two books are just such different mediums. With picture books and chapter books, the illustrations enhance the story. With a graphic novel, the illustrations tell the story. 

So with "Princess in Black," Dean and I write the text as it will appear in the book, without any art notes. (That text can stand alone; the "Princess in Black" books are audio books that can be understood without illustrations). Then LeUyen, with input from the art director, determines which visuals from the story she’ll create and how to lay it all out. (She’s such a genius at this, by the way. She just gets which images from the story are most important and how to make them both vital and funny.)

But with a graphic novel, I create a script that’s more like a screenplay than a novel. I write it with panel-by-panel descriptions, writing out what text is in each panel — whether dialog, narrator caption, any signs or other text elements — as well as a description of what is happening in that panel—any action, which characters we see, the setting, what the characters are feeling if it’s not clear from the dialog or if it’s a silent panel, etc. 

Then LeUyen comes in and interprets the script. Sometimes she'll follow my direction to a T, other times she’ll take a panel I wrote and expand it into three panels or condense three panels into one, etc., however she feels is the best way to tell the story. But I feel like it’s important for me as the writer to write it out panel-by-panel so I can be sure that the action I’m describing could be communicated in a single image. 

It’s not a screenplay or a novel, it’s a very unique medium and a very tricky and time consuming one to pull off. Fortunately, LeUyen Pham is a genius. She also just gets the story I was trying to tell, as if it sprouted out of her own bone marrow. 

Never once did she alter a panel or add a visual I didn’t write without it being exactly in keeping with the story as I felt it, as I remembered it. It’s like I have the left half of our brain, she has the right, and we somehow thought in unison from three states away.

It’s back-to-school season. If there is one piece of advice you could have given yourself on your very first day of school ever, what would it be?

LP: Man, I’ve tried to give my kids advice on their first day, but it doesn’t work! It’s like talking to Teflon, it just doesn’t stick. And of course it doesn’t, that’s part of being a kid, you have to go through your own struggles and searches for self. 

Now I’m on the flip side, as the mom, and I worry about all those passages they’ll have to go through, and offer as much advice as I can to avoid them. But you just can’t, and I’m starting to accept that. 

So now my advice is always the same, “Life isn’t always easy, but we always will find ways out of it. Just go with it, and try to have as much fun as you can while you do!”

SH: Yeah, in my experience, kids don’t listen to or absorb advice. I probably didn’t either. Which is what makes stories so powerful. They often can’t take in advice but they can take in story and find in the story something they need. 

One thing that eventually made school and friends a bit easier for me: Say hi to everyone and use their name if you know it. Little Shannon in "Real Friends" starts to do this near the end of the book. Life is kinder when we have bonds between the other humans in our ecosystem, and greetings and names are one simple way of making bonds. 

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Twitter: @tracycbrown